Updated: Sep 14, 2018
In theory, political leaders would support public schools in great and profound ways. In theory, they would help schools grow leaders and build-up communities. In theory, politicians would make decisions that support students, support teachers, and support learning.
In theory, that is all true.
Instead, what seems to happen is politicians think that they can use the education system as some sort of bulletin board for whatever issue they can staple to the wall to get people's attention.
The rule seems to be: get the base excited, angry, or interested. Get their support. Run away to the next issue at hand.
It doesn't matter what happens to the kids or our teachers.
The base is happy. Voters are buzzing. Mission accomplished.
An ugly example of this came up in Texas this past week. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took to Facebook with the following posts:
Their posts elicited a strong response:
Base. Successfully. Enflamed.
And while the English teacher in me would love to digress on the whole "hero's" issue in that last comment, let’s focus here.
Do Abbott and Patrick have a point here? Is this political correctness at its finest? Are our political leaders simply righting an inconceivable wrong: an erasure of heroic actions from our history?
The short answers? No. No. And no again.
What was ACTUALLY Changed and Why
First, a little background for the non-educators or non-Texans reading this. Texas teachers use teaching standards called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (or TEKS) as a framework for what they are supposed to teach their students.
The TEKS are backed by state law, specifically Chapter 28 of the Texas Education Code.
These essential knowledge and skills that students must learn are supposed to help guarantee that all students are able to:
“… read, write, compute, problem solve, think critically, apply technology, and communicate across all subject areas.”
Later in Chapter 28, the TEC states that these TEKS are simply a minimum standard of education and that “each district is encouraged to exceed the minimum requirements” of the TEKS.
So, before we get to the specifics of what changed and why it caused such an outrage, you need to understand these realities:
- Texas teachers teach from the TEKS.
- The TEKS are an outline of what essential knowledge and skills students should learn.
- The TEKS are a minimum framework.
- Teachers are encouraged to teach more than what is outlined in the TEKS.
The second thing to understand is that these TEKS are revised and streamlined periodically.
The revision and streamlining processes are not quick. They are not easy. Just the opposite, actually. The process is…
Now, the change referenced by both Abbott and Patrick occurred during the streamlining process of our current social studies TEKS. When TEKS are streamlined, the purpose is simple:
"The goal of streamlining is to ensure the standards are focused on only the knowledge and skills that are essential in each course/grade level. Streamlining should produce fewer and clearer standards that are teachable in the time allotted without diluting the rigor of the standards."
Fewer standards. Clearer standards. No loss in rigor.
So let’s look at the change.
The debate centers around a single 7th grade Texas History standard. The recommendation was to change this:
7.3(C): explain the issues surrounding significant events of the Texas Revolution, including the Battle of Gonzales, William B. Travis’s letter “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” the siege of the Alamo and all the heroic defenders who gave their lives there, the Constitutional Convention of 1836, Fannin’s surrender of Goliad, and the Battle of San Jacinto
7.3(C): explain the issues surrounding significant events of the Texas Revolution, including the Battle of Gonzales, the siege of the Alamo, the Constitutional Convention of 1836, Fannin’s surrender at Goliad, the Battle of San Jacinto and Treaties of Velasco
Everything in this standard remained the same except three things:
1) the removal of William B. Travis’s letter,
2) the removal of the phrase “all the heroic defenders who gave their lives (at the siege of the Alamo)", and
3) the addition of the Treaties of Velasco.
You can see the work group’s specific recommendations and rationales here:
And because the work group’s rationales are made public, we don’t have to guess at why they recommended these changes. Their thinking is clear.
They removed the letter because it is embedded in the teaching of the siege of the Alamo. You’re not going to find many Texas History teachers that discuss the siege without making reference to "I shall never surrender or retreat" and "Victory or Death!"
The recommendation to remove the specific reference to the letter was made in order to relieve teachers from feeling the need of analyzing the letter and instead focusing on the actual events surrounding the siege.
This would satisfy the concept of fewer standards, providing teachers more time to add depth to their lessons.
The work group indicated two issues with the “all the heroic defenders” phrase.
First, the “all the…defenders” is vague. There were approximately 150 defenders at the Alamo. Which defenders are the teachers supposed to teach? Just the big names: Bowie, Travis, and Crockett? Or lesser known individuals such as Juan Abamillo, Micajah Autry, and James C. Gwin?
The ambiguity in this phrase is a teacher killer.
This is the kind of thing that sends teachers sprinting out of the profession.
Second, the word “heroic” was considered a “value charged word.”
Let’s talk about this for a minute.
Does heroism mean the same thing to all people, in all contexts?
I can think of a scenario where one individual would say that a certain action was heroic and another claim the exact same action was stupid.
If I were to climb the large pine tree in my front yard to retrieve a kite for my son, I’m thinking, "Where’s my medal? Call the newspaper!"
Pictures are going on Facebook.
My wife, however, is rolling her eyes at the absurdity of risking my life for a $3 kite.
One person: I’m a hero.
Another: I’m an idiot.
Now, am I implying that the defenders of the Alamo were NOT heroic?
Of course not.
However, can I imagine having a student who could claim that the actions taken by the defenders of the Alamo were possibly not heroic, and that retreating to a nearby fort or larger military complex could possibly have been a more appropriate action that would have saved lives, providing an opportunity to reorganize and await reinforcements?
I would not be shocked by such a response, and I would applaud the student for constructing such a well-reasoned argument.
Would I think that student doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices made for his or her freedom?
Not at all.
Instead, I would be encouraged to know that a future voting citizen is able to reason and rationalize their thoughts, that they are capable of applying critical thinking skills to complex situations, and that they are bold enough to have an opinion but wise enough to support that opinion with reasoned argumentation.
In short: I’d be thrilled.
But of course, maybe squashing all of that and simply saying…
…and then asking…
Ah, yes. We’re totally learning something now.
Remember the goals of the streamlining process: fewer and clearer without a loss of rigor.
Does removing the “and all the heroic defenders” phrase reduce the amount of content included in the standards?
Does it make things clearer for teachers?
Does it reduce the rigor of the standard?
Teachers will still teach the siege of the Alamo and everything that naturally comes with that.
Travis’s letter will naturally come up as a part of explaining the mindset of the defenders.
To help tell the story (and therefore increase engagement in the classroom and retention of the information), teachers will naturally include the names and actions of specific defenders.
Discussions will naturally happen. Discussions of the the bravery of the defenders. Discussions of the difficult decision to remain in the Alamo in face of certain death. Discussions of the aftermath and the outrage that led to the Battle of San Jacinto.
These things will happen not because the TEKS say (or don’t say) the teachers have to teach these things.
But instead, these are the things that good teachers do.
To imply that teachers would ignore the heroic actions of the defenders of the Alamo just because they weren’t specifically told to teach that concept in their standards is an insult to their intelligence and a blatant dismissal of their professionalism.
The TEKS are a minimum standard.
They are a starting point.
To decry political correctness over a simple streamlining process is to misinterpret a routine process that on most occasions goes unnoticed by the majority of citizens.
However, I feel that there’s something a little more nefarious at work here.
Simple outrage because of genuine patriotism would at least make sense. I could handle that.
Let me post another screenshot of the revision in question, but this time with another 10 pixels added to the bottom:
This revision was recommended in April.
I’m writing this in September.
Abbot and Patrick posted their outrage last week.
On the same day.
Why the coordinated fuss five months later?
It’s not because these notes weren’t public. Like I said, anyone with access to the internet could see these recommendations on TEA’s webpage.
And I can’t imagine that something like this, if it’s really that big of a deal, wouldn’t have made it across the desks of our top political leaders as soon as the notes were posted.
No, I fear that Abbott and Patrick knew exactly what recommendations were made and when they were made, but instead they chose to withhold their disagreement until now.
Outrage in September is so much more politically expedient that outrage in April, particularly when midterms are right around the corner.
And the sad thing? It worked. The SBOE reversed their decision.
A State Board of Education committee member stated:
“…the advisory group never intended to remove the Travis letter from the classroom or to discourage teachers from describing the defenders as “heroic”…eliminating the reference was only meant to simplify the wording of the teaching standards.”
And although this mindset is exactly what is needed during the streamlining process, the decision was reversed.
The political powers at hand caused an uproar, and the uproar won.
And you know what? The base is very pleased:
If you’re really wondering if this was an attempt to change history because someone hates the defenders of the Alamo and wants to erase them from the history book, simply look at the revisions of the 4th grade social studies TEKS.
You will see that the same workgroup left the following list of Alamo defenders behind in the standards:
4.3(B): summarize the significant contributions of individuals such as Texians William B. Travis, James Bowie, and David Crockett; Tejanos Juan N. Seguin, Placido Benavides, and Jose Francisco Ruiz; Mexican Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna; and non-combatants Susanna Dickinson and Enrique Esparza
This outrage was not about correcting some hidden attempt at changing history.
This was about unnecessarily politicizing something that had everything to do with helping teachers serve our students better by providing better specificity to their standards and to free up time for them to do what they crave to do with every ounce of their soul: teach.
Instead, that was taken away from them.
This decision was not for students. It was not for teachers. It definitely was not for learning.
It was for votes.